August 13: boldacious Blenheim

2012/08/13 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1704 John Churchill won the Battle of Blenheim.

The battle was a turning point in the War of the Spanish Succession that trounced the plans of Louis XIV to gallop all over Europe.  Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough, executed sly and risky maneuvers near the Danube village of Blindheim that are credited with saving the Habsburg capital, trouncing Bavaria, disappointing France and ensuring the ultimate victory of the Grand Alliance.

Marlborough returned to England to great acclaim and was honored by a grand procession in Westminster Hall and a thank-you token from Queen Anne.  Not really into golf clubs nor gold watches, her gift was the Park of Woodstock and the extraordinary sum of £240,000 for the construction of a house that was intended to be more than a residence, also serving as a monument to the great strategist, his victory, and England itself.

It’s a wonderful coincidence that the house was built during the brief time that Baroque architecture was in its ascendency in England, for no other style delivers the same bombastic aesthetic firepower that was required for this singular dwelling.  Earlier, after the death of Inigo Jones, seventeenth-century architecture still looked pretty defensive rather than triumphant; later Neo-Classicism might communicate splendid elegance but is too lanky and brittle to telegraph martial victory and aggressive confidence.  Through their scale, heft and boldness, Baroque buildings manage glorious power like few other styles.  The architect deemed capable for the challenge of this design was an untrained man of taste, a writer of dramas, political firebrand and splendid wig-wearer, Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726).

His design for Blenheim Palace is basically three great blocks, any one of which would trounce any ‘normal’ grand house (if there is such a thing).  At Blenheim, the main section with state and private rooms is flanked by extensions for such necessaries as kitchens and horse stables, arranged around a huge court.  The building itself is a massive array of chunky pieces smashed and piled together, bubbling with pilasters and engaged columns and a deep cornice over which rise an assortment of sculpture.  At the very center is an image of Britannia lording over chained French captives within the pediment of a temple front, framed by curving quadrant screens.  The facade presents an appropriately majestic face for the building which is a national monument as much, or more so, than it was a residence.  The interior treatment continues the jaw-dropping effects of the exterior, leaving no doubt in visitors’ minds that they were in the presence of greatness.  Such was always the mission and accomplishment of Baroque architecture, no matter which particular power was glorified (the church in Rome, the crown in France, the military strategist in England).

Blenheim Palace was the Churchill family home for three centuries, during which time other fascinating creatures resided in it.  American bajillionaire Alva Vanderbilt forged the match of the century when she exchanged her daughter for the family’s association with titled nobility (here she is, with her fancy family as painted by Sargent).  Some decades later the most famous Churchill of them all was born in its halls and, although not an elegant man, perhaps absorbed some of its power and resolve into his own character.

Image: do note the tour busses for scale (from this source)

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